Shooting for perfection: Rich historical setting, star performances can’t salvage lackluster story
During Prohibition, moonshining and bootlegging were family businesses — none more infamous than the Bondurant brothers.
“Lawless” epitomizes the harsh reality of their true story. The trio ran illegal distilleries in Franklin County, Va., during one of the most violent, crime-ridden eras in American history.
The blood-soaked gangster film paints the vivid light of a Depression-era western. Based on the novel, “The Wettest County in the World,” by Matt Bondurant — grandson of Shia LaBeouf’s character Jack Bondurant — “Lawless” is a slow-paced drama with sudden bursts of bloody violence.
The ambitious crime epic flirts with greatness, but ultimately falls short, bogged down by a disappointing ending and uneven lead acting from LaBeouf.
The dusty towns and lush countryside of 1930s Virginia come alive through rich cinematography and dynamic performances from the film’s talented cast. Tom Hardy is transfixing as Forrest Bondurant, commanding a dominant presence in spite of his low, mumbling drawl. He’s pitted against Guy Pearce in Pearce’s meatiest role in years as Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, a ruthlessly vindictive Chicago Prohibition agent.
“Lawless” tells the story of Forrest (Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack Bondurant (LaBeouf). They’re operating in relatively peaceful defiance of the law until Rakes (Pearce) shows up, threatening their business and way of life.
Rakes is an overblown mix of pompousness, insecurity and malevolence, brought together by Pearce’s disturbing cackle and twisted Chicago accent. His bludgeoning of Jack Bondurant within an inch of his life is gruesome to watch, but Pearce’s performance is too captivating to look away.
Pearce loses himself as an eccentric villain with quirky mannerisms and malicious sneer. Rakes’ appearance is striking — almost no eyebrows, an awkward part in his slicked-back hair and clad in a neatly pressed suit with a bow tie and gloves. Set against the bootleggers’ simple demeanor, he seems almost inhuman.
Forrest grows close to a stunning ex-showgirl named Maggie (Jessica Chastain), while Jack courts the preacher’s daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). Gary Oldman appears in a brief but memorable role as Chicago mobster Floyd Banner; in one vintage scene, he actually shoots up a car with a Tommy gun.
As the young and impulsive Jack Bondurant, LaBeouf’s performance isn’t terrible, but leaves something to be desired. He shines in certain situations: flirting with Bertha, riding around town in a new car and suit, and always wearing a wide, boyish grin. But in the more dramatic scenes, his moodily erratic acting doesn’t match up with the likes of Hardy and Pearce. LaBeouf has so much screen time that it’s hard not to eventually find him annoying.
The Bondurants refuse to pay off corrupt officials, who then unleash Rakes, a mad dog employing every violent and deceitful method at his disposal to take them down. It escalates into an all-out bloodbath between the bootleggers and the law, and not everyone makes it out alive.
Hardy continues his exponential rise to stardom as Forrest Bondurant, stealing scenes with soft-spoken grumbles and an intense stare. The burly action star takes every blow, cut and bullet in stride and just keeps walking. When Forrest fights, you can feel the sickening crunch of his brass knuckles against a skull. Hardy is the real star of “Lawless.”
Director John Hillcoat has a very distinct style of blending slow, methodical storytelling with stomach-churning gore set against dazzlingly bleak landscapes. He helmed the brutal Australian western, “The Proposition,” and adapted Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic thriller, “The Road.” Hillcoat brings the same tone to “Lawless,” capturing the grit and desperation of the times while showcasing the natural beauty of the American South. If only the final act wasn’t predictable and anticlimactic, his film may have garnered the classic pedigree it so obviously strives for.
“Lawless” has everything that makes an entertaining crime saga: booze, guns, small-town romance and bloody showdowns. The acting is mostly top-notch, and it’s set on a rich historical stage.
Sadly, the story can’t quite put them all together, and “Lawless” ends up being pretty good instead of great.
Contact Rob: firstname.lastname@example.org
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